Translations of the Oldest Rhyming Poems in the English Language

Translations of the Oldest Rhyming Poems in the English Language

A Poem by Michael R. Burch
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Translations of the Oldest Rhyming Poems in the English Language

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TRANSLATIONS OF THE OLDEST RHYMING POEMS


These are translations of some of the oldest rhyming poems in the English language. While the focus is on early English rhyming poems, there is a section on early rhyming poems from other languages at the bottom of this page. The oldest Old English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) poems did not rhyme, but were alliterative and used repetition of consonant and vowel sounds to create word-music. For example:

Cædmon's Hymn (circa 658-680 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


Humbly now we honour heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the Measurer's might and his mind-plans,
the goals of the Glory-Father. First he, the Everlasting Lord,
established earth's fearful foundations.
Then he, the First Scop, hoisted heaven as a roof
for the sons of men: Holy Creator,
mankind's great Maker! Then he, the Ever-Living Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth: Master Almighty!

"The Rhyming Poem" also known as "The Riming Poem" and "The Rhymed Poem" is well-named, because it appears to be the oldest English rhyming poem. It was included in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to circa 950-990 AD. However the poem may be older than the collection in which it was discovered.

The Rhymed Poem aka The Rhyming Poem and The Riming Poem
anonymous Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book, circa 990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


He who granted me life created this sun
and graciously provided its radiant engine.
I was gladdened with glees, bathed in bright hues,
deluged with joy’s blossoms, sunshine-infused.

The full poem can be read here: The Rhyming Poem


Reginald of Durham recorded four verses of Saint Godric's: these are the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive. The first song is said in the Life of Saint Godric to have come to Godric when he had a vision of his sister Burhcwen, like him a solitary at Finchale, being received into heaven. She was singing a song of thanksgiving, in Latin, and Godric renders her song in English bracketed by a Kyrie eleison:

Led By Christ and Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


By Christ and Saint Mary I was so graciously led
that the earth never felt my bare foot’s tread!

Crist and sainte marie swa on scamel me iledde
þat ic on þis erðe ne silde wid mine bare fote itredie


In the second poem, Godric puns on his name: godes riche means “God’s kingdom” and sounds like “God is rich” ...

A Cry to Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


I.
Saintë Marië Virginë,
Mother of Jesus Christ the Nazarenë,
Welcome, shield and help thin Godric,
Fly him off to God’s kingdom rich!

II.
Saintë Marië, Christ’s bower,
Virgin among Maidens, Motherhood’s flower,
Blot out my sin, fix where I’m flawed,
Elevate me to Bliss with God!

Saintë Marië Virginë,
Moder Iesu Cristes Nazarenë,
Onfo, schild, help thin Godric,
Onfong bring hegilich
With the in Godës riche.

Saintë Marië Cristes bur,
Maidenës clenhad, moderës flur;
Dilie min sinnë, rix in min mod,
Bring me to winnë with the selfd God.


Godric also wrote a prayer to St. Nicholas:

Prayer to St. Nicholas
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


Saint Nicholas, beloved of God,
Build us a house that’s bright and fair;
Watch over us from birth to bier,
Then, Saint Nicholas, bring us safely there!

Sainte Nicholaes godes druð
tymbre us faire scone hus
At þi burth at þi bare
Sainte nicholaes bring vs wel þare

This little-known gem may date to around the same time as the St. Godric poems:

Now skruketh rose and lylie flour
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa 11th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


Now the rose and the lily skyward flower,
That will bear for awhile that sweet savor:
In summer, that sweet tide;
There is no queen so stark in her power
Nor any lady so bright in her bower
That Death shall not summon and guide;
But whoever forgoes lust, in heavenly bliss will abide
With his thoughts on Jesus anon, thralled at his side.

A similar poem to the one above, in time and language, is "Blow Northerne Wynd," which has been called the "most ancient love poem in the English language," perhaps composed during the reign of King John. But I prefer the lovely poem above, if not the Christian sentiments of the closing couplet.

How Long the Night
(anonymous Old English Lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch


It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong
now grieve, mourn and fast.

Now Goeth Sun Under Wood or Pity Mary
(anonymous Old English Lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch


Now the sun passes under the wood:
I rue, Mary, thy facefair, good.

Now the sun passes under the tree:
I rue, Mary, thy son and thee.

"Sumer is icumen in" (also known as the "Summer Canon" and the "Cuckoo Song") is a medieval English round, or rota, or rondel, of the mid-13th century. Many scholars believe the "Cuckoo Song" was probably composed between 1240 and 1310, although some think it may date back earlier, to the 12th century.

Sumer is icumen in
anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1240 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


Sing now cuckoo! Sing, cuckoo!
Sing, cuckoo! Sing now cuckoo!

Summer is a-comin'!
Sing loud, cuckoo!
The seed grows,
The meadow blows,
The woods spring up anew.
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe bleats for her lamb;
The cows contentedly moo;
The bullock roots;
The billy-goat poots ...
Sing merrily, cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo,
You sing so well, cuckoo!
Never stop, until you're through!

Fowles in the Frith
(Anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


The warblers in the wood,
the fishes in the flood
and I must go mad: ...
such sorrow I've had
for beasts of bone and blood!

I am of Ireland
(Anonymous Medieval Irish Lyric, circa 13th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


I am of Ireland,
and of the holy realm
of Ireland.

Gentlefolk, I pray thee:
for the sake of saintly charity,
come dance with me
in Ireland.

The original poem still smacks of German, as the first line reads: "Ich am of Irlaunde." But a metamorphosis was clearly in progress: English poetry was evolving to employ meter and rhyme, in addition to Anglo-Saxon alliteration.

Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1340-1400) is generally considered to be the first major English poet and the greatest English poet of the Medieval Period. He is best known for The Canterbury Tales but was also a master of lyric forms such as the rondel and balade. Chaucer has been called the "Father of English literature" and has been credited with helping to legitimize the English vernacular for literary purposes at a time when French and Latin were preferred by the "upper crust" in England. Chaucer was also the first writer to have been buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty")
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


Your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Unless your words heal me hastily,
my heart's wound will remain green;
for your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain.

By all truth, I tell you faithfully
that you are of life and death my queen;
for at my death this truth shall be seen:
your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

EARLY RHYMING POEMS IN OTHER LANGUAGES

CHINESE


The Shijing or Shi Jing ("Book of Songs" or "Book of Odes") is the oldest Chinese poetry collection, with the poems included believed to date from around 1200 BC to 600 BC. According to tradition the poems were selected and edited by Confucius himself. Since most ancient poetry did not rhyme, these may be the world’s oldest extant rhyming poems. While the identities and sexes of the poets are not known, the title of this ancient poem may mean "Aunt" and thus suggest that it was possibly written by an aunt for a relative.

Shijing Ode #4: “JIU MU”
ancient Chinese rhyming poem (c. 1200-600 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


In the South, beneath trees with drooping branches
thick with vines that make them shady,
we find a lovely princely lady:
May she repose in happiness!

In the South, beneath trees with drooping branches
whose clinging vines make hot days shady,
we wish warm embraces for a lovely lady:
May she repose in happiness!

In the South, beneath trees with drooping branches
whose vines entwining make them shady,
we wish true love for a lovely lady:
May she repose in happiness!

I have heard rumors of very early Egyptian rhyming love poems, but so far I have not been able to find any evidence of such. If you have such evidence, please leave the information you have in the comments!

HEBREW


While most ancient Hebrew poetry did not rhyme, an example of rhyme and meter in ancient Hebrew poetry can be found in the Proverbs 6:9-10. These verses split into four lines of poetry demonstrate both internal rhymes (common to biblical Hebrew texts) and end rhymes (far less common). The last word of the first line (AD MaTAI ’aTZEL tishKAV) rhymes with the last word of the last line (me’AT KhibBUQ yaDAYM lishKAV). In the third line, the second and fourth words create an internal rhyme: (me’AT sheNOT, me’AT tenuMOT). Also, the first word of the second line (maTAI taQUM mishshena TEKsgha) is identical to the first word of the first line, linking those two lines without an obvious rhyme. The translators of the King James Bible came up with this translation:

How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard?
When wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?
Yet a little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to sleep.

GREEK AND LATIN


Greek and Latin poetry did not normally employ end rhyme. However, there are exceptions. For instance Catullus 1 (“cui dono lepidum novum libellum”) employs end rhyme. Catullus (c. 84-54 BC) was a Latin poet of the late Roman republic who influenced Ovid and Virgil, among others.

Catullus 1 (“cui dono lepidum novum libellum”)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


cui dono lepidum novum libellum // To whom do I dedicate this novel book
arida modo pumice expolitum // polished drily with a pumice stone?
Corneli tibi namque tu solebas // To you, Cornelius, for you would look
meas esse aliquid putare nugas // content, as if my scribblings took
iam tum cum ausus es unus Italorum // the cake, when in truth you alone
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis // unfolded Italian history in three scrolls,
doctis Iuppiter et laboriosis // as learned as Jupiter in your labors.
quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli // Therefore, this little book is yours,
qualecumque quod o2 patrona virgo // whatever it is, which, O patron Maiden,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo // I pray will last more than my lifetime!

There is an end-rhyming sequence in classical Greek poetry, in Alcestis 782-786:

�™ροτοῖς ἅπασι κατθανεῖν ὀφείλεται,
κοὐκ �"στι θνητῶν ὅστις ἐξεπίσταται
τὴν α�"ριον μέλλουσαν εἰ �™ιώσεται·
τὸ τῆς τύχης γὰρ ἀφαν�™ς οἷ προ�™ήσεται,
κἄστ᾽ οὐ διδακτὸν οὐδ᾽ ἁλίσκεται τέχνῃ.

Ovid employed rhymes in Amores 1.2.1-4, 39-42:

Esse quid hoc dīcam, quod tam mihi dūra videntur
strāta, neque in l�"ctō pallia nostra sedent,
et vacuus somnō noctem, quam longa, per�"gī,
lassaque versātī corporis ossa dolent?
...
laeta triumphantī d�" summō māter Olympō
plaudet et appositās sparget in ōra rosās.
tū pinnās gemmā, gemmā variante capillōs
ībis in aurātīs aureus ipse rotīs.

ARABIC POETRY


Rhyme is essential to classical Arabic poetry and apparently goes back at least to the seventh century AD, perhaps earlier. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down the first Arabic poet(s) to employ rhyme. If you have any useful information, please post it in the comments.

THE END

© 2021 Michael R. Burch


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Added on June 10, 2021
Last Updated on July 11, 2021
Tags: old oldest rhyme rhyming poem po